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Companions of Xanth (Preceded by the Worrisome Case of Piers Anthony)

20 Dec

I first read Piers Anthony’s thick 1969 novel Macroscope when I was in my early teens, and haven’t returned to it since. Nevertheless, I still remember the back-of-the-jacket text on my dog-eared old first paperback edition: “Existence is full of a number of things, many of them wondrous indeed — and these are the things of this soaring novel.” This high-flown blurb has remained so memorable to me because it’s so unlike anything anybody would ever write about Anthony’s work today.

Piers Anthony was born in 1934, and first made a name for himself in literary circles as one of the slightly lesser lights among science fiction’s New Wave of the 1960s. He was no Roger Zelazny, Ursula Le Guin, or Harlan Ellison, but he was regarded as a modestly promising young writer in his own right; he even contributed a story to the second of Ellison’s landmark Dangerous Visions anthologies in 1972.

But that honor, along with Macroscope, which became his second and last novel to be nominated for a Hugo award in 1970, actually mark the high point of Anthony’s respectable literary career. It had always been difficult for him to pay the bills as a second-string writer of serious speculative fiction, and it only grew more difficult as the luster faded from the New Wave in the 1970s and his books attracted even less attention. He was saved from a perhaps not-undeserved obscurity by Lester del Rey, one of genre fiction’s most legendary editors and curators. As the first to nurture and publish such writers as Stephen R. Donaldson, Terry Brooks, and David Eddings, del Rey became largely responsible for the post-Tolkien, post-New Wave boom in epic fantasy fiction. But, apparently seeing a different set of strengths and weaknesses in Anthony than he did in those other charges, del Rey guided him down a rather less epic path. Thus in 1977 Anthony came to write A Spell for Chameleon, the first novel in an endless series of them set in the pun-infested light-fantasy world of Xanth.

A Spell for Chameleon certainly wasn’t the worst fantasy novel to be published that year. While it had nothing of any substance on its mind whatsoever, its very lightness made it a welcome alternative to the likes of the three other writers I’ve just mentioned, whose books came complete with all the labored self-seriousness of an Emerson, Lake, and Palmer album. The fact is, there really wasn’t much else like A Spell for Chameleon on bookstore shelves in 1977; it felt like a genuine breath of fresh air.

Unfortunately, that book was as good as Xanth ever got. When it became the best-selling novel he had ever written by far, Anthony recognized it for what it was: a formula for maximum sales with minimum labor investment. And from that point on, he never looked back.

Still, even the first few Xanth novels after A Spell for Chameleon weren’t horribly written by the standards of their kind. Eventually, though, Anthony decided that such niceties as editing were incompatible with his desire to publish one of them every year, along with two or more other books from his other series. In time, he admitted to writing his novels using a “template” in his word processor — ah, the wonders of technology! — that he needed merely fill in, Mad Libs-style. He was actually able to outsource much of the writing to his readers, by inviting them to submit their own jokes and plots and character outlines. But where the rubber meets the road, in the form of sentences on the page, none of these assistants could make up for his refusal to take the time to be any good at his craft. There are sentences in latter-day Anthony in particular which are simply appalling from a writer with decades of experience. Consider, for example, this extract: “So why would I break with him? Because I came to the conclusion that he was a loose cannon. The problem with such a cannon is that it is more dangerous to its friends than to its enemies. I had suffered such looseness before…” If ever a court is established for crimes against the English language, Piers Anthony ought to be one of the first writers it indicts.

Between 1977 and today, Anthony has churned out no less than 42 Xanth novels, with another four reportedly complete and merely awaiting release as of this writing. And in between all those Xanth novels, he’s written dozens of other books. His guiding principle appears to be that not one word he writes should ever be put to waste; he wants somebody to pay for every last stroke of the keyboard. Thus he’s written two rambling, unfocused “autobiographies” which seem to be composed of journal extracts and “how to be a successful writer” advice columns he wasn’t able to place anywhere else. And thus when he wrote a series of letters to a twelve-year-old Xanth fan who had been paralyzed in a car crash, he irretrievably tainted the kindness he had evinced in doing so by compiling all of them into a book and publishing that too.

Anthony’s great stroke of genius for promoting all of these books came right out of the modern social-media playbook: he built his brand out of himself, building a cult of personality that superseded pesky details like the quality of his prose or the originality of his plots. For most people, Xanth fandom has a definite expiration date; it generally begins in one’s preteen years, and is over around the time one learns to drive a car. Within that window of time, however, many youngsters are all in for Xanth, and this is due not least to the connection they feel to its mastermind. Early on, Anthony took to appending an “author’s note” to each of his novels, in which he mused about the circumstances of its creation. That anyone, much less impatient youngsters, should have found these interesting was rather bizarre on the face of it. Anthony didn’t travel much or have adventures in the real world or build or do unusual things. He mostly just sat in front of his computer in his suburban home — not exactly a memorably unusual lifestyle in this modern world of ours. In the context of his author’s notes at least, the purchase of some extra memory for his computer or the switch to a new word processor counted as major life events for him.

And yet his fans absolutely ate it up. Most of them were still at an age when books and other creative works seemed to fall out of the sky fully-formed from a realm completely isolated from their own experience. Their glimpses of a real person behind the curtain of the Xanth novels marked for many of them their first exposure to the idea of artistic creation as a human labor — perhaps one they could even engage in themselves. And so, far from being a disadvantage, this sweeping away of the creative mystique was a big part of Xanth’s appeal, inculcating enormous loyalty in Anthony’s young readers. A memorable 2012 episode of the radio show This American Life illustrates the real bond that existed (and presumably still exists) between Anthony and his fans by telling the story of a picked-on teenage boy who ran away to the house of his favorite author — and was, it must be said, treated by said author with great kindness and compassion when he arrived there.

Yet even as he was nurturing such a warm relationship with his fans, Anthony was cementing his reputation among his peers as one of the biggest jerks in genre publishing. His career has been a long string of feuds and shattered friendships, which he describes at length in his autobiographies. His most longstanding battle has been with the Science Fiction Writers of America, an organization he claims to have “blacklisted” him during his lean years; no one actually involved with the SFWA is quite sure what he’s talking about. The real core of Anthony’s anger would seem to be his frustration at not being taken seriously by such establishment organs as this one. He’s long since been dismissed — admittedly, on pretty good evidence — as a hack; there will be no more Hugo talk in his future. Anthony complains endlessly about how all of his more “adult” fiction has been overshadowed by the Xanth novels which have made him a rich man, but has never taken the obvious step of simply not writing any more of the latter. The tension between artistic and commercial demands has tortured the psyche of many a writer, but in Anthony’s case it feels more comical than tragic, given that his adult books all tend to read like Xanth novels with more explicit violence — and, most especially, with much more explicit sex. And so we arrive at the really disturbing side of Piers Anthony.

I want to be especially careful in what I say next because I’ve always tried to separate the creator from his work when writing criticism of any stripe. Certainly there’s no shame in writing disposable children’s entertainment. And certainly there have been plenty of other writers who have also been jerks, including some whose talents far exceeded those of Anthony. And certainly writers need to be able to address difficult, uncomfortable subject matter without being accused of promoting or glorifying the things they describe; Vladimir Nabokov should not be deemed a pedophile because he wrote Lolita. But, even having taken all of that to heart, it remains hard for me to avoid the feeling when reading Piers Anthony on the subject of sex that something is simply wrong with this guy.

Anthony’s wrongness about sex, I should emphasize, isn’t the usual science-fiction author’s clunky mawkishness. It’s more extreme even than Robert A. Heinlein during his Dirty Old Man phase, when he wrote about sex like an alien with no understanding of human psychology might, describing it like any other mechanical process might be described by any of the dozens of stock Competent Men who populated his novels: “Now, you see, Friday, it’s just a matter of inserting Tab A here into Slot B, then moving it in and out like so.” No, Anthony’s obsession with girls just past the age of puberty — or in some eye-opening cases with girls who have not yet reached puberty — is more pernicious than this sort of rank cluelessness. It’s the reason that, if I saw a youngster I was fond of reading an Anthony novel, I wouldn’t just shrug my shoulders, but would actively try to steer her toward something I consider more healthy. For there really is, I think, a sickness — moral if not psychological in the clinical sense — running through this man’s body of work.

This side of Anthony isn’t new, although it has grown more pronounced over time as he’s become less beholden to editors. A Spell for Chameleon‘s gender politics weren’t particularly progressive even by the standards of the late 1970s. Its hero is a young man named Bink who wants something which his author considers to be impossible under normal circumstances: a girl with whom he can enjoy a warm friendship-of-intellectual-equals and whom he also finds sexually attractive — for it’s taken as a given by Anthony that a smart girl can never be a sexy one. The solution to Bink’s problem arrives in a girl with the unsubtle name of Chameleon, who cycles over the course of a month between a hideous but brilliant hag and a beautiful but moronic nymphomaniac. (Yes, Anthony’s idea of allegory really is that banal.) And so Bink’s problem is solved. The solution comes complete with a bit of teenage philosophizing, which Bink delivers to Chameleon’s nympho-bimbo incarnation just before they go at it again.

“I like beautiful girls,” he said. “And I like smart girls. But I don’t trust the combination. I’d settle for an ordinary girl, except she’d get dull after a while. Sometimes I want to talk with someone intelligent, and sometimes I want to –” He broke off. Her mind was like that of a child; it wasn’t really right to impose such concepts on her.

“That’s the point,” he said. “I like variety. I would have trouble living with a stupid girl all the time — but you aren’t stupid all the time. Ugliness is no good for all the time — but you aren’t ugly all the time either. You are — variety. And that is what I crave for the long-term relationship — and what no other girl can provide.”

Cringe-inducingly adolescent though this take on guys and chicks might be — especially when one considers that it was written without any apparent irony by a 43-year-old man — it’s pretty harmless compared to where the Xanth novels went later on. Uncomfortably young girls get put in sexually charged situations, often with much older men, over and over. There’s little to no explicit sex — note where Bink “breaks off” in the extract above — but the subtext keeps getting more and more creepy. By 1992, Anthony felt free to entitle one of his Xanth novels The Color of Her Panties. At this point, it was hard to avoid the feeling that he was deliberately trolling the critics who had by now been calling him out for his books’ pervy subtexts for quite some time.

Still, Anthony’s allegedly prurient interest in his young female subjects would be much more speculative — and I would probably not be writing this article — were it not for those other, “adult” books of his. Many of these ooze the same disturbing fixations as the Xanth books, but are able to carry them through to, shall we say, consumation. Exhibit Number One in this category must be Firefly, a 1990 attempt at horror dealing primarily with what Anthony himself describes as “inflamed and perverted sexual desire.” It includes a lengthy sex scene between an adult man and a five-year-old girl, described in minute detail. In fact, the scene is another, rather horrifying example of Anthony’s habit of outsourcing the writing of his books: it came from an imprisoned pedophile with whom he corresponded. Anthony, in other words, literally published child porn. It’s quite simply the most disturbing thing I’ve ever read in a lifetime of prolific reading. Not even Mein Kampf bothers me like this. Needless to say, I won’t be quoting it here.

But, you counter, this was a horror novel, a genre meant to shock and transgress norms. Don’t confuse the author with the work, etc. And I might reluctantly agree with you, even if I didn’t have any personal desire to ever read anything by this writer again. But then comes the author’s note, in which Anthony justifies the rape of this five-old-girl because… she wanted it. She was asking for it, tempting the man who had sex with her into the deed. (Did I mention that she is five years old?) Her name is Nymph. (Did I mention that Anthony isn’t subtle?)

There seems to be a broad spectrum of human desire, and what we call normal is only the central component. It may be that the problem is not with what is deviant, but with our definitions. I suggest in the novel that little Nymph was abused not by the man with whom she had sex, but by members of her family who warped her taste, and by the society that preferred to condemn her lover rather than address the source of the problem in her family.

Those who feel that [the imprisoned pedophile’s] stories represent abnormal taste should read My Secret Garden by Nancy Friday, which details some of the sexual fantasies of women. Neither is Nymph an invention; similar cases are all too frequent. These aspects were from my research rather than my imagination. I don’t know what is right and what is wrong; I merely hope to raise some social questions along with the entertainment provided in the novel. I suspect our priorities are confused. We have problems enough with world hunger and injustice, without making more by punishing people for deviant but perhaps harmless behavior.

Here we have it from the horse’s mouth. The rape of a five-year-old girl is “perhaps harmless.”

We often see this pattern of argument — the “hey, I’m just asking questions!” pattern — among those who wish to say something much of the society around them will consider reprehensible but who lack the courage to stand right up and do so. (You see it constantly, for example, in the toxic arena that is present-day American politics.) Added to all of the other circumstantial evidence swirling around Piers Anthony — his many almost-as provocative statements made in interviews; his correspondences with multiple imprisoned pedophiles, not just this one; the unending fascination with pubescent and prepubescent girls running through most of his novels — it raises a strong feeling that something is indeed wrong inside this fellow’s head. I should emphasize that I have no reason to believe that Anthony has ever acted on the urges in question, if they do in fact exist. Has he found a way to satisfy them through his writing instead? That would be a good thing, if so; the crime exists not in the unfortunate psychological kink of being a pedophile, but in acting upon it. Or, that is, it would be a good thing — if only his books weren’t being read.

Once you’ve seen these things, you can never unsee them. Anthony’s cherished relationships with his young fans — and again, I have no reason to believe he has ever abused their trust in any physical sense — takes on a new, creepy flavor. Suddenly all those long letters to the paralyzed girl, as collected in the book Letters to Jenny, begin to read disturbingly like… well, like he’s flirting with her. And suddenly we breathe a sigh of relief that the teenage runaway whose story was chronicled on This American Life was a boy rather than a girl. How much of this is real and how much is projection? It’s impossible to say. (Hey, I’m just asking questions…) I will say only this: please, read someone else’s books, and try to get your children to do so as well. I smell something rotten at the core of this writer’s output, and I know I’m not alone.


All of the foregoing ruminations were prompted by my ostensible “real” subject for today, the 1993 Legend Entertainment game Companions of Xanth. Ironically, I find myself with somewhat less to say about that subject than I do about Piers Anthony’s odd and disturbing career arc as a writer. The game is… reasonably good, actually, if hardly one of the most memorable works in the history of adventure gaming. The creepiness factor is kept surprisingly low under the circumstances, the humor is hit-and-miss but always good-natured, and the design, with one glaring exception which we’ll get to momentarily, is up to Legend’s usual high standard. Further, in one sense at least, the game represents a real landmark in Legend’s history: it marks the point where they finally dumped their parser and embraced the point-and-click paradigm, thus ushering in the second of the three broad phases of the company’s history and ushering out the age of the commercial text adventure writ large.

Companions of Xanth came to exist at all entirely thanks to Legend’s everyday composer and music programmer Michael Lindner, who also happened to be one of those rare readers who defy the usual age-circumscribed window of Xanth fandom; he had retained his affection for the series right into his adult years. He had first supplemented his usual duties at Legend with those of a writer and designer on 1992’s Gateway, a project consciously engineered by the company’s co-founder Bob Bates to serve as a sort of boot camp for training up new designers. Having duly completed that apprenticeship, Lindner begged for permission to make a Xanth game as his first project as a head designer. His managers obligingly made inquiries, and soon brought home a contract to make a game version of Piers Anthony’s latest Xanth novel-in-progress, which was to be titled Demons Don’t Dream. As was more usual than not for licensed projects like this, Lindner had very little direct contact with Anthony in the course of making the game. He largely had to content himself with pre-release proofs of the novel in question, whose plot the game he made follows fairly closely but not slavishly.

We can probably feel pleased for Anthony’s lack of involvement, in that it means that most of the pervier elements of Xanth are missing. While Anthony in his novel dwells at length over the “luscious young women” in the story, Lindner lays it on considerably less thickly.

The pervy aspects of Xanth aren’t overly prevalent in the game, but aren’t entirely absent either. You can look up “panties” in the in-game encyclopedia…

Still, the plot is rife with other Xanthian staples — not least the meta-fictional elements that had become such a hallmark of the series by this point, sixteen books in. Many of the jokes, situations, and characters in both the book and the game come courtesy of Anthony’s army of fans, who are scrupulously credited by name in the book’s author’s note. The most notable example of fan service is the character of Jenny Elf, based on the author’s young friend Jenny, the car-crash victim he wrote to at such length. (By this point, Anthony tells us in his author’s note, she had recovered from her paralysis sufficient to sit and even stand briefly without support. She would make further strides in the years to come, although she would never regain her full range of motion.) Jenny Elf, who is blessedly not overly sexualized even in the book, appears alongside Sammy Cat, the real girl’s favorite pet.

You yourself play as a teenage boy named Dug who lives in Mundania, the non-magical alternative to Xanth; Mundania, that is to say, is our world. As a hater of computer games, Dug has made a bet with his friend Ed that he won’t like one called Companions of Xanth. If his faith in the pointlessness of the gaming hobby holds true, he wins Ed’s motorcycle; if this game proves an exception to the rule, Ed gets a date with Dug’s estranged girlfriend. (“But what if she doesn’t want to go out with you?” asks Dug. “That’s a technicality we’ll deal with at the appropriate time,” answers Ed. Okay, the game isn’t totally without creepy elements…)

So, the earliest stages of the real Companions of Xanth require you to open this virtual Companions of Xanth and boot it up on your in-game computer. (Confused yet?) After some preliminaries, you get sucked through the monitor screen into Xanth. (That is to say, your character in the game you’re playing gets sucked through the monitor of the computer running the game he’s playing.)

Companions of Xanth resoundingly fails to put its best foot forward. Just as you’re about to enter Xanth and get started properly, it lives up to its name by asking you to choose a companion for your adventures from four possibilities. A nice little addition, this, you think to yourself, as you choose the companion that looks most interesting and entertaining. This must be a way to make the game replayable, a la Maniac Mansion. But nope! Think again! There’s just one “correct” companion to be chosen. Naturally, this being a Piers Anthony creation, that companion is the nubile serpent chick named Naga. If you make the supremely non-Xanthian move of choosing any of the others, the game lets you play for a few minutes longer, then dead-ends you; it’s time to restart or restore, my friend.

Such a colossal design fail is downright bizarre to see in a Legend game of this vintage. It struck me immediately that it must be an artifact of an earlier, more ambitious plan to offer four genuinely divergent experiences — a plan which got chopped down to size once the realities of time, labor, and money came home to roost. Unfortunately, neither Bob Bates nor Mike Verdu can recall what might have gone down here, and I haven’t been able to locate Michael Lindner. So, all we can do is speculate.

After a beginning like that, whatever the reason for its existence, one goes into the rest of Companions of Xanth decidedly nervous, wondering if it’s going to be one of those sorts of games. Thankfully, it isn’t; the aforementioned is its only real design pratfall. After it gets going properly, it evinces the meticulous commitment to fair play which the Legend brand was coming to stand for by 1993.

Much of the humor, and with it many of the puzzles, revolve around puns and wordplay, long a Xanth staple. Mind you, Companions of Xanth isn’t as clever as something like Infocom’s Nord and Bert Couldn’t Make Head or Tail of It in this respect. It is, after all, implicitly written for a less sophisticated audience, yet it can still be good fun in its own right. You’ll spend time here battling a censor ship, finding a way to get beyond the pail, and visiting the Fairy Nuff. Sometimes the puns go a little too far out on a limb — the “com-pewter,” an interactive compendium made out of pewter, is one example — but the puzzles themselves are always comprehensible, which is the most important thing. Only those who struggle a bit with idiomatic English in general, such as non-native speakers, are likely to have any major problems solving the game.

Companions of Xanth as a whole is as lightweight as the novels which inspired it. If it never quite dazzles, it never annoys overmuch either, at least once you get past that first hump, and it might even prompt a chuckle or two. It’s a sort of baseline standard game for Legend, never really managing to distinguish itself in either a positive or a negative way. Yet its interface did mark it as something truly new for the four-year-old company at the time of its release, and as such is perhaps worthy of more attention than the game it supports.

As I noted in my last article, in reality the parser disappeared more gradually than suddenly from Legend games; the full run of titles the company released between 1990 and 1993 shows a slow marginalization of the parser, until finally, beginning with Companions of Xanth, it just wasn’t there at all anymore. In fact, this same evolutionary process could be said not to have really ended even here. Although the move to point-and-click has forced the loss of that sense of infinite possibility that so delights people like me and Bob Bates, what remains here is about as text-adventure-like an interface as can be imagined under the new paradigm. Indeed, it smacks of the old ICOM Simulations interface from the mid-1980s, the industry’s earliest serious attempt to recast the classic adventure game in this mold, more so than it does the contemporary interfaces of Sierra and LucasArts. In a sense, one might even say, the parser still exists in this game. It’s just that you now build your imperative sentences with the mouse instead of the keyboard. Such an approach had always been an option in the earlier Legend games; now, it merely becomes a requirement.

Given that the screenshots of the interface included with this article are all but self-explanatory, I won’t dwell too long on its mechanics. Clicking a hotspot in the onscreen picture will highlight a default verb in the list on the left of the screen. Simply clicking on the hotspot again at this point will take that action, but you can also choose another verb from the list, if you wish. Many objects also have unique verbs which show up below the standard list when they’re highlighted; a rock, for example, might have an additional “throw” verb. And indirect objects are connected to certain actions; throwing the rock will require a third click, specifying what to throw it at. As you’re doing all of this, you see your command being built right there on the screen, just as if you were typing it in via a parser. It’s even possible to specify a verb first, then choose the object it acts upon, although this approach is of limited utility in that it doesn’t give you access to the special verbs connected to some objects.

All of which is to say that the new interface truly does represent another evolutionary rather than revolutionary technological step for Legend. What we have here is not a whole new game engine, bur rather the old one with a different front end. Once it gets past the stage of interpreting the player’s command, there’s less difference than you might expect between this Legend game and those that came before it.

This fact is most clearly illustrated in the screenshots by that little “Undo” button in the corner, something you would never — could never — see in a Sierra or LucasArts game. For those games run in real time, while Companions of Xanth, like a text adventure or an ICOM game, is still turn-based. This distinction has an enormous impact on the character of the game, reaching far beyond the welcome ability to instantly undo your last action when you get yourself killed or otherwise try something unfortunate. Legend games even after the parser went away have a more relaxed, contemplative, literary sensibility than the works of Legend’s peers. There’s still quite a lot of text here, and that text is still treated with unusual care and respect. It isn’t hard to divine, after playing around with one of their point-and-click games for just a few minutes, why Legend became the go-to studio for literary adaptations during the 1990s. While it had proved possible to take the type-in parser out of Legend’s engine, it was more difficult to take the literary spirit of the text adventure out of the company’s collective design aesthetic.

One holdover from text adventures that may not thrill some players is the maze…

This held true even when Legend was otherwise embracing the multimedia era with gusto. Although Eric the Unready and Gateway 2: Homeworld had both been released in CD-ROM versions prior to Companions of Xanth, those were mere repackagings of the floppy-disk-based versions into a more convenient format. But when the subject of this article appeared on CD-ROM about six months after its original floppy-based release, it sported voice acting for the first time in a Legend title. And yet even here the voice acting only covered words said by the characters you met; there was no global narrator. Such an approach felt very much in keeping with that overarching literary sensibility that so marked Legend’s work. In this game, and in the next several Legend games to come, you were still expected to do a lot of reading for yourself.

For the record, the voice acting that is to be found in the CD-ROM Companions of Xanth is excellent — an impressive feat considering that this was Legend’s first foray into such a thing. Even here, their first time out, they were wise enough to employ professional actors recruited from the local union for same and recorded at a professional sound studio. It’s obvious that the actors had fun with their roles; my favorite part of the whole game might just be the blooper reel of outtakes which plays over the closing credits.

In the end, though, I find myself torn on the subject of Companions of Xanth in a way I can’t recall being for any other game I’ve written about here. If it existed in a vacuum, shorn of its association with Piers Anthony, I would call it a fun, frothy little fantasy romp, a solid debut for a new interface which retains more of the spirit of the old than we might have dared to hope for. And I would be happy enough to leave it at that. But, even as I believe it’s wrong to judge art on external factors in the vast majority of cases, there are exceptions, and I’m not sure this isn’t one of them.

I don’t blame Legend in any sense for making this game. Many of the more worrisome aspects of Anthony’s oeuvre become obvious only in the aggregate; most or all of those who worked on this game at Legend doubtless believed that they were merely capitalizing on a popular, harmless series of lightweight fantasy books. And yet I do find myself wishing that they had chosen some other series, just as I wish any current readers of Xanth, young or old, would do likewise. In my role of critic, I can tell you that Companions of Xanth is a (mostly) well-constructed game that’s relatively inoffensive in itself. But should you play it? That is, as always — but perhaps here even more so than usual — something you’ll have to decide for yourself.

(Sources: the Piers Anthony books Bio of an Ogre, How Precious was that While, Letters to Jenny, Macroscope, A Spell for Chameleon, The Color of Her Panties, Firefly, and Demons Don’t Dream; Computer Gaming World of July 1993 and March 1994; Questbusters 108. My thanks go to Bob Bates and Mike Verdu for talking with me about this period of Legend’s history — but I must emphatically state that all of the opinions expressed herein, especially of Piers Anthony and his work, are mine alone.

Companions of Xanth has not been re-released as a digital edition, doubtless owing to the complications involved with licensed titles. I’d prefer not to host it here due to my distaste for Piers Anthony, but you can find it elsewhere without too much trouble.)

 

BONUS:

The Compiled Life Wisdom of Piers Anthony, as Found in His Autobiographies



Writers like Roger Zelazny and Samuel Delany got awards because of their sophistication as writers, which sophistication I do not question, but I was regarded from the outset as an entertainment writer. What I was doing was too complex and subtle, not only for others to understand, but for them even to realize that it existed.



The best guide for a book to avoid is an award winner.



I worried that I would not be able to write fantasy well without Lester del Rey’s editing. But instead it was like a burden lifting from my shoulders. Suddenly I was free of oppressive editing.



Then Lester tried to cut the entire Author’s Note from the fourth Incarnations novel, Wielding a Red Sword. He said it was too long, and anyway, they were in the business of publishing fiction, not nonfiction. This was the Note in which I described my computerization — I had until then written my novels in pencil and then typed them with a manual machine, so it was a significant step for me.



When I read Isaac Asimov’s massive two-volume autobiography I found it interesting, but concluded that the minutia of daily existence are seldom worth recording for posterity.



I dumped SFWA, and have remained hostile to it since. There is evidence that some of its members are still spreading falsehoods about me. If ever push comes to shove, I will put it out of business. Because today I have the resources to sue. All I need is the pretext.



I, like most boys, would have been capable of orgasm at any time in childhood, had I known how to masturbate.



A formula I invented for explaining the ways of publishers: TPB = SOD. What does it mean? Typical Publisher Behavior is Shitting On Dreams.



So are publishers really as rapacious and idiotic as they seem? Yes and no. Just as the intelligence and conscience of a lynch mob may be less than that of any individual person within it, so may the net savvy of a publisher be below that of any of its components.



I feel like a beautiful woman. That is, a lovely woman is pursued by many men — but when she mentions commitment, most of them vanish. Some vanish when they find they can’t get her into bed on the first date. Others vanish after they do get her into bed. So she becomes cynical; it is evident that most of those ardent suitors are insincere; all they want is her body for a night, rather than an enduring relationship, unless she happens to be rich. All the publishers really wanted from me was my best-selling series, Xanth — and those who lost it and those who got it tended to vanish as far as my other novels went.

I pondered, and my agent pondered, and it was my wife, who evidently understands the situation of beautiful women, who came up with an effective notion: link the one to the other. Make a package deal. So when the time for a new multi-novel Xanth contract came up, we put it to TOR: double or nothing. If this man wanted to get this woman in bed again, there would have to be marriage — though TOR’s chief editor is female, and I’m male.



[My wife and I] have what I call a conventional marriage: I earn the money, she spends it. In fact she keeps accounts and does the taxes, which are complicated. I decide on the big things, like the significance of world events, and she decides the small things, like everything else. I’m glad I married her, and believe that I would not be where I am today without her. But if I should find myself alone, I would then consider more carefully what else offers, with strong cautions from my life experience. Meanwhile I have a small category of correspondents I treat politely: those who profess or imply love for me.



Women of any age are interesting, and as a general rule, the younger a woman is, the more interesting she is, because natural selection dictates that the man who controls the greatest part of a woman’s fertile years will have the most children. A girl of twelve may have breasts and be a young woman in appearance; she is sexually desirable, regardless of law or custom. A girl of eleven may lack the breasts but be of similar general appearance, and her clothing masks her lack of maturity. So it is evident that some men aren’t concerned about the distinction, and go for the vagina regardless.



I have an insatiable curiosity about the nature of the universe and mankind’s place in it, and my profession of writing allows me to explore it all, seeking answers. I have fathomed a number of things to my satisfaction before they were clarified by the scientists.



Sometimes I’m stupid. This is annoying when I’m taking an IQ test.

 
59 Comments

Posted by on December 20, 2019 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

Tags: ,

59 Responses to Companions of Xanth (Preceded by the Worrisome Case of Piers Anthony)

  1. S. John Ross

    December 20, 2019 at 4:56 pm

    Yikes. I’ve read only the first three Xanth books before I drifted away from them (I remember liking the first, disliking the second, more-or-less liking the third), and Prostho Plus (sci-fi shorts about a space dentist, reassembled into a novel), so I clearly only scraped the Anthony surface. Sounds like a lucky escape on my part. I read them all while still in high school, but I’ve always kinda-sorta wanted to read the dentist one again.

     
    • Michael Russo

      December 20, 2019 at 6:27 pm

      hear hear. i think i read the same 3 and while i enjoyed them more of less i decided it would be diminishing returns from there (even before i heard about all the other nonsense). there’s so much other great stuff to read, why bother with crap?

       
      • S. John Ross

        December 20, 2019 at 10:11 pm

        I forgot! I read 1.333 of the Incarnations of Immortality novels. I forgot they were Anthony plus forgot them altogether.

         
  2. whomever

    December 20, 2019 at 5:23 pm

    Good on you Jimmy for tackling this head on. Funnily enough even as a young boy Piers Anthony felt really…off, and I didn’t even finish the book that I started (can’t even remember which one). This post will almost certainly bring on the trolls so I urge everyone to please please ignore them.

    However I did actually find this posting quite interesting, firstly as finding out more about Mr. Anthony (Next up: Did “Mists of Avalon” ever get made into a game? Google says no, thankfully) and secondly about a game that I completely missed (and this is one of the ones I won’t bother to go back and try and play).

     
  3. Tucker McKinnon

    December 20, 2019 at 5:50 pm

    Do note that Spell For Chameleon includes, for no apparent reason, a mock rape trial which ends with “she was asking for it.”
    https://specficjunkie.blogspot.com/2015/07/review-spell-for-chameleon-by-piers.html
    No matter how poorly you think Piers Anthony’s writing has aged, it’s always worse than that.

     
  4. Alan

    December 20, 2019 at 6:34 pm

    I was practically a stereotype of the Xanth fan you describe. The thing that really stuck with me was after reading a a bunch of his novels (maybe 10?), my mother read one and I was no longer allowed to check them out from the library. At the time I was completely befuddled. I saw the sex stuff, but didn’t really appreciate it. Looking back on the bits and pieces I can remember… yeah, wow. “Sowing one’s oats” was a recipe for making a sex golem. The pre-age-of-majority girl (probably in The Color of Her Panties?) who specifically enjoying flashing those panties to get a reaction from men. *sigh* It’s weird now having fond memories but becoming uncomfortable as I remember more.

     
    • Saint Podkayne

      March 8, 2020 at 2:02 am

      I’m assuming that when we are busy being prepubescent to pubescent ourselves, it’s much easier to miss this kind of weirdness. After all, these are our age mates, people our age are ‘normal people’ doing all kinds of things, and everyone younger or older belongs to a different world entirely. It’s one thing as a 10-year old to read about another 10-year old flashing her panties, and another to wake up one day at 35 and think “holy hell, why was a writer of my age now thinking that hard about the panties of a 10-year old?” To me that makes it a worse betrayal. I was never a Piers Anthony fan but there are other writers I feel similarly about now.

       
  5. Oded

    December 20, 2019 at 6:34 pm

    Typo – one of the Chameleon had become Chamelon.

     
    • Jimmy Maher

      December 20, 2019 at 10:33 pm

      Thanks!

       
  6. Oscar

    December 20, 2019 at 7:04 pm

    Wow! I’ve never read any of Anthony’s books, but the short excerpts alone you provide here are massive red flags. It’s criminal so many young people were exposed to this ‘literature’ during their formative years.

     
  7. Jason Dyer

    December 20, 2019 at 7:17 pm

    I was watching a streamer recently play a wildly obscure adventure called Lone Eagle: Colombian Encounter (from 1994) that’s real-time like Sierra/Lucasarts but has an “auto-restore” which functions just like an undo key.

     
  8. Andrew Plotkin

    December 20, 2019 at 10:01 pm

    The irony here is that Anthony was seriously obsessed with games, riddles, logic puzzles, and game-related mathematics. At least he was in the 1980s, which was the last time I checked.

    This game stuff is all through Anthony’s early books, including Macroscope, the Phaze series, the Incarnations books, etc, etc. There are many scenes which show legitimate game-design chops. That is, when the characters are playing games or solving puzzles, the author had clearly thought through the design of what was going on.

    So I always thought — at least, through the 80s — that Anthony would have made a *great* adventure game designer. He could clearly have wrangled puzzle ideas with the best. And, sex stuff aside, his brand of nerdy-cardboard characters and checklist plotting would have suited 1980s adventure games a lot better than it suited the up-and-coming high fantasy genre!

    And yet, when _Companions_ came along, it just didn’t happen. I couldn’t understand why. But, at that point, I didn’t care any more.

    (I hit my limit in, I think, 1989, when I bought a Xanth book in an airport bookstore and discovered that sitting bored and bookless in an airport was *better than reading it*.)

     
  9. Allan Holland

    December 21, 2019 at 1:26 am

    Unflinching excoriation of a shameful career. A nasty piece of work he is. You didn’t mention Split Infinity where everyone’s naked all the time while they wait to compete in everything from bobsledding to Connect Four. While naked. He’s made nearly nothing but prurient, base, worthless and worst of all artless art. Well said.

     
    • Jacen aka Jaina

      December 21, 2019 at 2:49 am

      And there’s a couple of other books in that series with worse scenes. It’s hard to believe that every single book has problems, but, it’s true.

       
    • moving sound

      December 22, 2019 at 12:16 pm

      I mean, I wouldn’t be surprised if it has as absolutely awful takes on women etc as A Spell for Chameleon and so on, but writing a book where the characters are nudists doesn’t seem like it’s awful just because of that?

       
      • Dave W.

        December 22, 2019 at 11:50 pm

        @moving sound: The problem is that the characters aren’t voluntary nudists (except in the sense that they have the right to leave the planet permanently, if I recall correctly). Serfs are kept nude, unless they need to wear protective clothing for a given activity, while the aristocracy (which the winner of the tournament gets to become) get to wear clothes. So you have this massive underclass performing in the nude for the entertainment of a clothed aristocracy, which is problematic.

         
        • moving sound

          December 23, 2019 at 12:26 am

          I mean, I suppose even with that premise, you /might/ be able to get something good out of it, but reading reviews it seems more like Anthony just produced something like a less-BDSMY and less visibly misogynistic Gor-ish type thing, or in other words, a massive hunk of tripe. …
          And this somehow resulted in 7 books, which I still find hard to believe. I guess this’s an example of why Anthony had to make his other works “package deals”…

           
          • Jacen aka Jaina

            December 23, 2019 at 10:00 pm

            And I believe that is the book series where a villain touches a drugged up child inappropriately, briefly, while talking about how “it can be done without leaving evidence”.

            I’m not exaggerating at all.

             
  10. Anonymous

    December 21, 2019 at 2:57 am

    Thanks for writing this. I was obsessed with Piers Anthony’s writing as a young teen, and it’s been both informative and upsetting to look at his work in retrospect. It’s hard to think of the effect that his work work had on my thinking as a 13 year old and not eventually get to the idea of grooming. Even as I’m writing this I’m thinking of a scene in one of his non-Xanth series that describes the attempted rape of a teenage character. I remember being repulsed by it, but also willing to look past it because of all of the fun titillating stuff in other stories and the weird personality cult. That sort of gradual (and I think purposeful) habituation of a young audience to increasingly upsetting material is almost the definition of grooming. In retrospect, I’m glad I never came across anything as vile as Firefly or Tatham Mound.

     
  11. Martin

    December 21, 2019 at 3:35 am

    While I recognize the name Piers Anthony, I’ve never read any of his books. Guess I won’t bother now.

    One thing I have to ask about the actual game. If you pick one of the “wrong” characters, how do you know it? Do you just get stuck, do you die, what exactly?

     
    • Torbjörn Andersson

      December 21, 2019 at 8:29 am

      “One thing I have to ask about the actual game. If you pick one of the “wrong” characters, how do you know it? Do you just get stuck, do you die, what exactly?”

      After you’ve made your choice of companion, the game-within-a-game starts with you in a room with four doors. You have to pick the correct door to get out. Three of the companions will pick the wrong door, getting your killed and forcing you to start over.

      I think the reasons this “puzzle” doesn’t work for me is that the game-within-a-game makes a big deal about how you have to choose carefully, but then pretty much admits that there wasn’t really any way for you to know that you had picked the wrong one. (And it still tells you to make a better choice the next time!) All of them sound like they have useful powers and/or abilities, and to me the correct one sounds like she would actually be the least useful.

      Maybe the choice was obvious if you had read any Piers Anthony books, but I haven’t.

      Compare this to a similar scene at the beginning of Stationfall. You are given a choice between three robots to accompany you, but come on. Who would seriously pick another robot than Floyd, when the cover of the game even says “Floyd is back”?

       
      • Torbjörn Andersson

        December 21, 2019 at 8:55 am

        I realize that you could argue that the correct choice is om the cover of the game… but that’s not what it looks like when you make the choice.

         
      • Ross

        December 21, 2019 at 10:38 pm

        As I recall it, there is absolutely no indication in the game which to choose (though I think one of them is very strongly coded as a bad choice. Like, “This one is actually the villain and is plotting to murder you”), but it came off as “If you’d read the books, you’d know instantly”, which I took at the time to mean that one of them was a character from the books, though in retrospect, it could just as easily have meant “One of them is a sexy lady.”

         
  12. Not Fenimore

    December 21, 2019 at 4:01 am

    “He’s wants somebody” -> “he wants somebody”

    Also, as someone who’s never read Anthony but whose previous impression was “basically pun-centric light fantasy like Robert Aspirin’s Myth-adventures”… um, eurgh. D:

     
    • Jimmy Maher

      December 21, 2019 at 9:18 am

      Thanks!

       
    • moving sound

      December 22, 2019 at 11:35 am

      So, does Aspirin’s Myth-adventures have any skeletons in its closet like this? Just asking because I’m in the mood for a humorous fantasy series, and I happen to like puns, so might as well have a look like stuff like that, just don’t want to stumble into something as awful as Xanth sounds.

       
      • Tempest

        December 22, 2019 at 6:42 pm

        Being a huge Myth fan, I can happily say that no, it doesn’t. Nothing like that at all, at least through all the books he did before he died. I think some people took over his series, but I never read those.

         
      • Jason Scott

        December 28, 2019 at 12:44 am

        Robert Aspirin’s problems were alcoholism and bad finances (constant issues with drinking affecting deadlines and poor choices putting him in trouble with the IRS). As someone who got way into looking up his life when the Myth books starting dragging on and on into years, nothing outside that seemed problematic or an issue, at least, nothing that has been discussed in public.

        Having his main character deal with alcoholism later in the books’ arc was an obvious way to write what you know, and deal with it, and that’s in some ways rather endearing. I’m sad he never got to put them out as fast as he wanted.

         
  13. xxx

    December 21, 2019 at 4:09 am

    To anyone unfamiliar with the subject who reads this and thinks “Man, Jimmy is really doing a character assassination on this Anthony guy”: he’s really not. The books really are that creepy and badly written. If anything, he’s being charitable here.

    Jimmy, I admire your willingness to read all that for this article. I don’t think I could have gotten halfway through that reading list without my brain starting to leak out my ears.

     
  14. TomR

    December 21, 2019 at 7:09 am

    I stumbled on PA and his Xanth tales in a public library as a kid. I think the only reason I read them was that they were free. The puns were amusing if you were easily amused, but I can’t think of any other merits to recommend them for any reason on, unless you enjoy forcing yourself to read dreck. That said, there was a brief moment where it seemed like the setting would’ve made for a good Leisure Suit Larry style adventure game, if it weren’t so sadly prurient (and that’s comparing it to LSL!) and banal. Speaking of Legend, their Superhero League of Hoboken had the same interface, but was a lot more fun, and perhaps will find review at filfre at some point. I came here from CRPGAddict’s sidebar, btw!

     
  15. Not Fenimore

    December 21, 2019 at 12:27 pm

    Also, look at that top-notch Crappy Nineties Fantasy Art(tm) cover. The weirdly over-emphasized torso! The spindly little stick-arms! The way her head is clearly not properly mounted on her neck!

     
  16. Allan Holland

    December 21, 2019 at 3:37 pm

    What hasn’t been fully addressed is Jimmy’s cultural crusade against these unclean works. Personally, I fully agree, endorse and adhere to the same notion. My kids wouldn’t read him if they could.
    I read the comments and look at the names on post after post and whether presented anonymously or not, these mostly erudite reactions to the posts and comments lead me to an inescapable conclusion: that this blog, perhaps as a byproduct, perhaps intentionally, has assembled a body politic of cultural cognoscenti. There are many names I respect from the pantheon of IF with true insight, and the pseudonymous and anonymous remarks are generally reasoned and engaged. Props to everyone who has been part of this meta-reality, especially the proctor and author. It provides a beacon of hope to a larger sphere.

     
  17. Joe

    December 21, 2019 at 4:08 pm

    I have not read your comments on the game (as I will be playing it for review next year), but I did read the blurb on Piers Anthony himself and… I have comments.

    Let me start by saying that as a young man, I *adored* Piers Anthony and his works. I discovered the Proton/Phase books around when I was 13 (a friend of mind *cough* lent them to me because he enjoyed one of the sex scenes and wanted me to read it as well) and that quickly developed as so many things do in my life into a bit of a “learn it all” obsession. Within a few years, I slowly amassed a near complete collection of everything Piers Anthony ever wrote. A different friend and I had this dream (after reading “Mercycle”) that we could bicycle all the way to his house– more than a thousand miles from our home in suburban Pennsylvania. His authors notes, which I would sometimes try to read in order, humanized him and made him feel like a guy that you knew that was just down the street.

    Which isn’t to say that the relationship was healthy and I grew out of this phase by high school. While I didn’t notice the inappropriateness of the sex as a young teen, coming back to the books later was increasingly uncomfortable. I also agree with the declining quality of the books with “Hard Sell” being the eye-opener for me. He even admits in that authors note that the book had been rejected and only his perseverance as an author to DEMAND that it (and a few others on his reject pile) actually be published in order to win the rights to one of his more popular series. That was the beginning of the end for me.

    I later found other authors and things to be obsessed about, but his work was one of the first where I felt a need to explore from end to end. I don’t regret that, but I wish in retrospect that I had seen some of these flaws a bit more clearly a bit earlier on.

     
    • Allan Holland

      December 22, 2019 at 2:58 am

      Brace and candid testimonial. Impressed.

       
      • Allan Holland

        December 22, 2019 at 2:59 am

        Brave

         
  18. Eric Nyman

    December 21, 2019 at 5:55 pm

    I was much more into IF and branching plot novels such as CYOA and Lone Wolf as a kid in the 80s and paid little attention to his work. I remember thinking highly of him after hearing the This American Life episode you referenced.
    The impression I get after reading your article is that he is a perpetual teenage boy, with all the pettiness, narcissism and sex obsession that entails. He richly deserved blacklisting after publishing child porn (and thank you for not mincing words about what it is).

     
  19. Joachim

    December 22, 2019 at 12:07 am

    I couldn’t quite understand why you seemed so upset with the guy until that nymph-quote.

    “I don’t know what is right and what is wrong” … bloody hell, man. Swearing is not my thing, but all I can think of in response to that is swearwords.

    I played the game without knowing anything about the books or the author, and I remember liking it a fair bit. It was a game I played over many years, each time getting a little bit further than the last time (without using a walkthrough). I remember being a bit disappointed about how the story progressed, though, Naga’s betrayal just felt wrong.

     
  20. Anonymous

    December 22, 2019 at 9:57 am

    When I was thirteen years old, a friend of mine waved me into our tiny school library. He was sitting with two other classmates of mine, nervously giggling at a book he held in his hand. I recognized it as one of the Piers Anthony novels that sat in the teen fiction section – one among dozens. The spines were all wrinkled with years of constant use.

    “Check THIS out…”

    My friend pointed to a chapter title simply titled “Rape”. My jaw dropped. I skimmed a few words on the page and pretended to be scandalized. Maybe I was. But at the time I was reading Stephen King’s *It*, and enjoying his descriptions of adolescent masturbation. I didn’t admit that to anyone else at the time, but that’s where our minds were in the seventh grade.

    I never did read a Piers Anthony novel after that. But not for a lack of interest in its sexual content. No, it was the fact that there were *dozens* of novels on that shelf and I was intimidated by the prospect of having to read all of them. Worse, I would have to consult with my friend who became a Piers Anthony devotee over the next couple of years, and admit to him that I had the same tastes in the nerdy and voyeuristic as he did.

    This article had surprisingly little engagement with what made Piers Anthony so *readable* for pre-teens and adolescents. The article leaps so quickly to a moralistic zone where the safety of adult judgment precludes understanding the titillation kids got from reading novels with sexual content of any kind. A way of saying, “Here, kid. If you wanna read something dangerous and sexy, try Mr. Nabokov like real men do. Put that trash away before I catch you reading it again.”

    That’s not how I perceived the world as a thirteen year old at all. I was interested in sex, and not always the glorious, romantic kind shown in PG-13 movies. I was even curious about rape in the naive way kids do, when they learn a word before they understand its context of use.

    My friend sat in that blue plastic library chair for years, enjoying Piers Anthony while he ate his lunch, before his tastes for language and fantasy (and sex) developed into adult fiction. The rest of the kids played basketball and gossiped about each other.

    I think I understand the fear of acknowledging teenage sexuality in a meaningful way. Better off to quickly dismiss or castigate it before anyone suggests that *you’re* going soft on a preteen porn hustler. But the understanding lost in that process leaves that kid in the library, reading alone at lunch, truly alone.

    And I don’t think he was.

     
    • Allan Holland

      December 27, 2019 at 7:39 pm

      Wow. No quarter asked, and none given. As it should be.

       
  21. Xauri'EL Zwaan

    December 23, 2019 at 5:20 am

    Not to belittle the horribleness of all the pedo stuff, but one of the most poisonous things being a Piers Anthony fanboy did to me was leave me with an intense distrust of editors and publishers. I refused to show my writing to any professional publisher for years because I was scared they were going to take it and ruin it. I read a book once that was basically a completely unedited version of a novel Anthony had once published, accompanied by detailed ‘annotations’ about every edit the publisher made to his material and why he hated it. The story itself was … not very good, but I was too immature in my taste and too sucked in to the Anthony cult of personality to care. I’m really glad I never came across some of his more problematic works before I grew out of him, although in retrospect there were quite a few.

     
  22. Alex Freeman

    December 23, 2019 at 7:07 am

    I do believe “I, like most boys, would have been capable of orgasm at any time in childhood, had I known how to masturbate,” and “Sometimes I’m stupid. This is annoying when I’m taking an IQ test,” shall join “That was more fun than getting flushed down a sewer!” and “Ha! Ha! That’s real Japanese style of kind” as some of my favorite random quotes.

     
  23. Steph C

    December 23, 2019 at 10:53 pm

    I had the same experience with Xanth novels as you describe here: I was reading them voraciously by age 8 and had drifted away by my later teens. There’s actually about a page of puns in book 19, Roc and a Hard Place, that’s taken almost verbatim from a letter I sent in – seeing it in print was both exciting (those are my words in this published book!) and a little disillusioning (those are almost EXACTLY my words, with just some lines sprinkled in about the book’s characters observing the puns—shouldn’t a big author like this be more than just reprinting my first-draft teenage prose?)

    The target audience for Xanth, and at least a few of Anthony’s other series, seems to be kids who were like me – elementary and middle school students reading at an adult level. I loved reading big, thick fantasy epics with goofy humor and as often as not kids my age as the heroes (Ivy the powerful kid magician and Stanley Steamer the dragon were particular favorites.) The abysmal sexual politics went right over my head, and when you’re ten, reading about other ten-year-olds running around naked or showing off their panties is just cute and kind of naughty. Then you grow up and realize those parts were written by a guy in his forties, and YIKES.

     
    • Allan Holland

      December 23, 2019 at 11:55 pm

      The abysmal sexual politics were over my head too. It is only in retrospect that I see the depravity (and unvarnished plagiarism!?!) inherent in this creep. In the early 90s in the mid-Atlantic there was a fan club open to be joined by calling 1-800 HI-PIERS. The guy himself showed up on a late night infomercial style fan club/paean to the author. I am not making this up. I actually called the number trying to join one night, but as the commercial only came on in the wee hours on third rate cable channels and we were partying at the time, I couldn’t keep from cracking up well enough to make a transaction. In the end, the poor sap on the other end of line just hang up on me. I think the fan club may well have coincided with the release of this game. The timing seems close. The club was deservedly short-lived.

       
  24. Reiko

    December 24, 2019 at 11:24 pm

    I have read a lot of Piers Anthony’s books over the years, mostly because I read a lot of everything. The questionable content mostly went over my head at younger ages or was easy enough to ignore to a point, but it did add up over time and eventually I got tired of it, especially once I figured out how formulaic Xanth was. I’m not a boy, so I wasn’t reading them for questionable content anyway. I think at least part of his problems were due to his impatience: if he hadn’t been trying to publish five books a year for decades on end, he would have had the time to edit and polish his ideas properly before publishing, rather than churning out crude and formulaic crap. He did have a lot of ideas, but maybe he had enough good ideas for 10 or 20 books, not 150.

    I personally think his best series (which admittedly isn’t saying much, but if you’re going to read any of them…) is the Apprentice Adept series (the Phaze books). The juxtaposition (ha) of fantasy and science fiction was unusual, at least when I encountered them, and the SF world’s game was really well-designed, as Zarf already mentioned. And the nudity was less gratuitous and more plot-relevant. It’s too bad there was never a game set in that setting: I think it could have made quite a good text adventure (avoiding most of the issues of nudity in a graphical format…).

    Incarnations has interesting problem-solving too in a sort of alternate-magical present, although that series is very questionable from a religious perspective quite aside from any sexual content. Both Phaze and Incarnations are very readable, without the formulaic and outsourced prose that drags down the Xanth books. Both series finished in 1990, by the way (except for the strangely-meta eighth book tacked on to Incarnations seventeen years later), which seems to have been somewhat of a tipping point for his writing.

     
    • Tsubasanut

      December 25, 2019 at 11:31 am

      An excellent point here. Pierce Anthony is a better world creator, than a writer. Even I can see some awkward phrasing here and there, and I’m not native English. But his worlds were always fascinating. Phaze, Incarnations,Cluster, Geo odyssey, Chroma, Space tyrant… awesome journeys all the time. I’m a bit chagrined after reading a lot of comments here in the vein of “haven’t read, but I condemn”. Yes, he is probably most sexuallizing scifi writer out there. But he is a top class world-builder. And you will be missing a lot by not sneaking a peek at his worlds.
      As for Xanth – it strangely worked for me because I’m not native English. Puns were such a delight for me to spot and discover. But if it was originally in Russian – I would probably get vexed quite quickly.

       
    • Allan Holland

      December 27, 2019 at 11:12 pm

      Relevant points. I can’t say I didn’t like the Phaze/Proton books. I just feel hoodwinked, my adolescent ignorance exploited, a victim of a psychic handsiness from afar as a teenager.

       
  25. mechajuma

    December 26, 2019 at 10:40 am

    Still a better love story than Twi- wait no it isn’t.
    Thanks for publishing this. A lot of it went over my head when I read it originally. Now I’m realizing how fucked up it is. Wow.

     
  26. Allan Holland

    December 27, 2019 at 11:05 pm

    Does anyone else have a sense of mutual epiphany, as though a set of discrete blog readers have, spontaneously and organically, undergone a shared regression therapy session? Weird, wild and cathartic stuff. The power of this medium has been demonstrated to its utmost here.

     
  27. Wolfeye M.

    December 31, 2019 at 9:52 am

    I somehow missed reading anything by Piers Anthony, which is odd because I’m a voracious reader of sci-fi and fantasy. I seem to remember as a child walking around the fantasy book section of the library, seeing a seemingly endless wall of books with all the same author, and saying “nope.” Now, I’m glad I didn’t bother reading any of them.

    This isn’t the first time I’ve seen people complain about him, I’ve seen comments by people elsewhere, mostly by women. But, this was the first time I saw it all spelled out, and dang, that’s some messed up stuff. Now I know an author to avoid in the future, when I’m looking for something new to read.

     
  28. Josh T.

    January 1, 2020 at 2:59 pm

    The “This American Life” link gave me a 404. It should be https://www.thisamericanlife.org/470/show-me-the-way

    Also I have to say I didn’t expect there to be a worse scumbag in this blog than Daryl Gates, but Piers Anthony came pretty close.

     
    • Jimmy Maher

      January 1, 2020 at 3:10 pm

      Thanks!

       
    • Ross

      January 1, 2020 at 11:11 pm

      Anthony is a creep to be sure, but he does not, as far as I know, have blood on his hands in the way that the people responsible for police militarization do.

       
  29. Scurra

    January 2, 2020 at 1:07 am

    Well I’m certainly not going to pop up here and defend Anthony’s writing (or him as a human being!) I will note that another blogger I read identified (correctly, I think) that the Xanth series was actually romance fiction disguised for teenage boys, who would never read something like that voluntarily. They certainly meet all of the tropes of that genre (admittedly plus puns!); the curiosity is that almost no-one else has tried this form much over the years, which may make his work seem particularly weird. And I do also think that his more recent Xanth entries are somewhat less overtly objectionable; they seem to be trying to overcompensate for some of the more egregious earlier work – the problem is largely that it’s much too little, much too late. And yes, I have read all of them. (My own feeling is that Anthony is misanthropic rather than overtly misogynist – outside of the unquestionable issues of prepubescent girls, he is pretty even-handed in how he treats his characters of whatever gender, and it’s usually with undisguised cynicism and even contempt at times. Which is in keeping with those autobiographical excerpts too.)

    But from a purely technical point of view, I will continue to be glad that I read his work. His world-building is fun and modestly innovative, and some of his meta-work is fantastic – the Adept series shines in this department, and the Incarnations series had a lot of fun with aspects of myth and archetype. He uses up more ideas in a single book than some authors manage in an entire career, and I do think that he does have some small justification for his complaint that his subtlety in structure and design has been overlooked because he writes mostly cheesy genre rather than more literary work. If he has any lasting legacy, I think it will be for that. I am certainly willing to acknowledge that he has been an influence on what I now do, but I’m pretty sure that it’s not the borderline child pornography aspect (I’m a puzzle writer!)

    Just remember that, in the end, he won’t be remembered. Just like plenty of other authors who had huge sales and seeming influence over the decades but who are now justifiably almost completely forgotten.

     
  30. genesistrine

    January 8, 2020 at 9:32 pm

    he was regarded as a modestly promising young writer in his own right; he even contributed a story to the second of Ellison’s landmark Dangerous Visions anthologies in 1972

    You… haven’t read that story, have you? It’s called ‘In the Barn’, and it’s a story involving non-sentient women attached to milking machines. And being violently bred by bellowing non-sentient men.

    No, I am not kidding. Ellison positioned it as a protest against the treatment of farm animals, but, well, I think most of us here miiight come up with a different interpretation.

     
    • Jimmy Maher

      January 9, 2020 at 5:45 am

      I have read it, although it was long ago. At the time, published as it was in an anthology dedicated to transgressing boundaries, it probably seemed more defensible on the ground which Harlan Ellison stakes than it does today, when Anthony has revealed at such prolific length that his interest in in these sorts of themes is more prurient than socially engaged. It certainly wasn’t the only story published in those anthologies that… hasn’t aged well, shall we say?

       
  31. anon

    January 27, 2020 at 4:58 pm

    I read a bit of Piers Anthony as a kid. None of the Xanth books, but most of the Incarnations of Immortality and the first few books of the Mode series. I think it was only in the Mode series when he started publishing an Author’s Note (or when i started reading it), but that was when i started to nope out. It might just have been because i was growing up and becoming more wise to the creepiness, but something about going from a fantasy novel into this real world of an old man talking about how connected he felt to his young girl fans didn’t sit well with me at all.

    In retrospect i think those Author’s Notes turned me off fandom for my subsequent teenage years and adulthood. The whole idea of young people glorifying writers or any kind of creator makes me very uncomfortable now, despite me being into plenty of areas of pop culture that cultivate fannish behavior.

    I haven’t thought about this guy in a long time, but this article took me right back. Hard to read. But an important article to write. Thank you.

     
  32. Lhexa

    March 2, 2020 at 8:33 pm

    It warms my soul to see Anthony trashed like this. His work is vile.

    That being said, I was reminded of your look at Lovecraft. It felt mean-spirited. I knew little about him, and have never read him, but from your descriptions recognized some kind of severe mental illness. Then, you spent a large portion of the entry mocking him, concluding that the power of his legacy, wherever it came from, did not come from any virtue as an author. The entry felt bad to read.

    Mercedes Lackey is a hero of the LGBTQ+ movement, thanks to her very early focus on gay characters in her fantasy. An unrecognized hero, but one nonetheless. When asked to explain her success, she answered, “I stumbled upon something archetypal.” How can we get to a place where such stumbles are regarded with something other than disdain?

     
    • Jimmy Maher

      March 3, 2020 at 10:09 am

      I’m very hesitant to diagnose mental illness from afar, even though I tiptoed right up to that line in this piece. And I’m even more hesitant to use it as a form of critical absolution. Doing so is a double-edged sword: if it means we no longer hold a writer responsible for the flaws in his work, it also means we no longer take it seriously at all as work worthy of study.

      Glancing back over the Lovecraft article, I struggle to see where I treat his “archetypal stumble” with “disdain.” The most relevant paragraph strikes me as kinder than anything I had to say about Piers Anthony. (I certainly can’t imagine applying the word “genius” in any context to Anthony.)

      When he wrote “The Call of Cthulhu,” his one stroke of unassailable genius, Lovecraft tapped into the zeitgeist of his time and our own. We should think about the massive shift in our understanding of our place in the universe that was in process during Lovecraft’s time. In the view of the populace at large, science had heretofore been a quaint, nonthreatening realm of gentlemen scholars tinkering away in their laboratories to learn more about God’s magnificent creation. Beginning with Darwin, however, all that changed. Humans, Darwin asserted, were not created by a divine higher power but rather struggled up, gasping and clawing, from the primordial muck like one of Lovecraft’s slimy tentacled monsters. Soon after the paradigm shift of evolution came Einstein with his theories about space and time, which claimed that neither were anything like common sense would have them be, that space itself could bend and time could speed up and slow down; think of the “loathsome non-Euclidean geometry” of Lovecraft’s Great Old Ones. And then came our first inklings of the quantum world, the realization that even the comforting regularity of Newtonian physics was a mere facade spread over the chaos of unpredictability that lay beneath. The world seemed to be shifting beneath humanity’s feet, bringing with it a dawning realization that’s at the heart of the embodiment of existential dread that is Cthulhu: that we’re just not that important to anyone or anything; indeed, that it’s difficult to even express how insignificant we are against the vast sweep of the unfeeling cosmos. I believe that our collective psyche still struggles with the ramifications of that realization today. Some cling ever tighter to traditional religion (it’s interesting to note that fundamentalism, in all its incarnations, is a phenomenon that postdates Darwin); some spend their lives trying to forget it via hedonism, career, social media, games (hey, I resemble that remark!); some, the lucky ones, make peace with their insignificance, whether through Nietzschian self-actualization, spirituality, or something else. But even for them, I believe, persists somewhere that dread and fear of our aloneness and insignificance, born of the knowledge that a rogue asteroid — or a band of inconceivably powerful and malevolent aliens — could wipe us all out tomorrow and no god would save us. It’s this dread and fear that Lovecraft channels.

       
      • Lhexa

        March 3, 2020 at 8:22 pm

        I’m hesitant to diagnose mental illness from afar, too, which is why I didn’t. I noted its likely existence, without regard to type. The severity of a mental illness is determined by how much it renders a person unable to function in society, and “unable to function” describes a lot of what I remember.

        To my embarrassment, I was unable to reread the Lovecraft post before writing my reply here. I tried to find the salient paragraphs to make sure I was not misrepresenting you, but I found the entry too distressing. So I gambled and went by memory. I apologize for completely misremembering and mischaracterizing your conclusion. Thank you for making the effort to show how I went awry.

        If you wonder why a person would write a response with so little intellectual rigor, it’s just because my response had been nagging at the back of my mind ever since I first read the Lovecraft entry, and I wanted to get it out of there. I’ve got lots I’d rather do instead of lingering over “Writer I like made me feel bad.” *coughs* Hopefully I can practice respectful commentary while I’m at it, as opposed to what I’ve done before.

        Finally, I certainly do not want to use mental illness as an excuse for unethical behavior. Had I done so at various points in my life, I would be a considerably worse person than I am now.

         

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